One SARS-CoV-2 variant (B.1.617) found in India has been dubbed the "triple mutant variant."
The strain has been classified as a "variant of concern" by the WHO and a "variant of interest" by the CDC, but experts say the available COVID-19 vaccines still offer protection against this and other variants.
The triple mutant variant is one possible reason for the current crisis, and here's where to donate to help India.
India's battle with a second wave of COVID-19 is making headlines with record-breaking daily cases and a rising death toll. The country recently surpassed more than 379,000 new COVID-19 cases in a single day, the biggest total recorded globally since the pandemic began.
It's a grim reminder that the pandemic is far from over, even as the U.S. hits promising vaccination milestones.
Some experts are pointing to the "triple mutant strain" or "triple mutant variant" of coronavirus as one possible reason for the uptick in India's cases. While the term may sound scary, it's simply another strain among many throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Viruses are constantly changing through mutations, and variants have been emerging from the very beginning of the pandemic. This B.1.617 variant is now classified as a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO) and a "variant of interest," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here's what you need to know about the triple mutant variant, according to infectious disease experts, and how to help India fight the new surge of coronavirus cases.
What is the triple mutant variant of COVID-19?
First of all, the name is a simplified description and can be misleading. This variant actually has many more mutations. "It's a shorthand for three mutations that are significant," says Amesh Adaljia, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "There are three mutations amongst a whole cluster of mutations that have been associated with increased transmissibility or immune evasion."
Researchers, including Divya Pej Sowpati a scientist leading COVID-19 genomics at the Centre For Cellular And Molecular Biology in India, have tweeted explanations to counter misinformation circulating. "Triple Mutant: Again, WRONG name, because it has many more defining mutations. Dubbed "triple" because in addition to the two mutations, it also has V382L in its Spike. This is a sub-lineage of B.1.617, found mainly in MH samples and also a bit in other states."
This strain has been found in Maharashtra, the second-most populous state in India, as well as a few other states in the country.
"This specific one has an official name, B.1.617, and we believe it was first detected in India in October," says Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, MD, clinical professor of preventive medicine at U.S.C.'s Keck School of Medicine. "Since then, it's also been detected in at least 21 other countries. It's been out there and fairly widespread."
It formed like all the other variants. "It's the normal process of viral replication that leads to mutations that form this strain or a U.K. or South Africa variant," says Adaljia. "Some mutations are favored because they increase the transmissibility of the virus. As long as the virus has new people to infect and more chances to copy it, it gets to be copied. It's going to accumulate mutations, some of which will eventually coalesce to form a new variant."
What makes this variant unique?
It's actually not that different. This strain has a few notable mutations that are already being tracked in other variants. One is E484K, described as a "major immune escape variant." Explains Adaljia, "It means that those mutations have evolved in order to be able to evade the antibodies that have been formed through natural infection with prior strains."
Data on transmissibility is still limited. "We're seeing this variant coming to dominate at a time when these things are increasing," says Adaljia. "One hypothesis is that this variant is able to spread more efficiently from person to person. This variant is occurring in India at the same time that cases are increasing. That's usually what gives people the suspicion that it might be more transmissible."
Is the triple mutant coronavirus more deadly?
There is no concrete evidence that this variant is deadlier or more transmissible than other variants. Also worth noting, it was recently added as a variant of interest on the CDC website. On May 10, the World Health Organization classified it as a "variant of concern." "We are classifying this as a variant of concern at a global level," Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, shared in a briefing, per Reuters. "There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility. Even though there is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies, we need much more information about this virus variant and this lineage and all of the sub-lineages." Based on its mutations, experts aren't too surprised by the new designation.
"I think there are lots of reasons to certainly be very concerned about what's going on in India right now," says Dr. Klausner. "But, concern should not be focused on the actual genetic code of the virus. Instead, it should be focused on the public health response and medical capacity to treat people who are sick."
Is it resistant to the COVID-19 vaccines?
There is no current evidence that the variant is resistant to COVID-19 vaccines. It does carry the E484K mutation, a characteristic found in the variants first identified in South Africa and Brazil.
"What's important to remember is that anytime we see these variants, vaccines still are able to prevent what matters: serious disease hospitalization and death," says Adaljia. "The bottom line is that our vaccines induce not just antibodies but also T cell immunity. They are able to protect against the variants, even if they can get around the vaccine in terms of giving someone a mild infection. The solution to these variants is to vaccinate."
And, you will continue hearing about new variants. "You're going to keep seeing news about new variants because we are looking for new variants and sequencing new variants," says Dr. Klausner. "Be reassured that the current COVID-19 vaccines, particularly ones developed in the United States, still are highly effective against any variants."
Instead of stressing about every new variant, consider helping with the coronavirus surge in India and around the world.
There are many organizations providing resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in India. Here's how you can help with a few clicks:
FromU2Them is a Mumbai nonprofit raising money to provide food and medical supplies to those in need around the hot spot city.
Youth Feed India and Helping Hands Charitable Trust are delivering meal kits with local staples like rice and dal to sustain vulnerable Mumbai residents. One $13 donation buys one meal kit, which feeds a family of four for 15 days.
The Indian Red Cross Society is accepting and distributing oxygen concentrators, ventilators, and additional medical supplies around the country's hard-hit areas. Donations help the organization's efforts.
The Association for India's Development is based in Maryland and partners with charities in India to distribute food and PPE. The organization has a dedicated COVID relief fund for India, and it's now accepting donations.
Heart to Heart International has launched international responses to COVID-19. The organization has collected and distributed PPE and sanitizers to hospitals and other first responder organizations.
Doctors Without Borders teams continue to respond to COVID-19 in more than 70 countries, caring for patients in local hospitals and providing resources. Donations go toward equitable global access to COVID vaccines, treatments, and tests.
Direct Relief provides cash funding, PPE, and other emergency supplies to more than 100 countries to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization's research team is also producing analysis tools to predict transmission and understand the effectiveness of social distancing and other measures to fine-tune relief efforts.
The United Nation's World Food Programme provides food for more than 11.6 million children who lost school-supported meals. It also keeps supply corridors connected despite closed borders.
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